Thursday, May 31, 2007
It's the small, relatively unheralded release of a four million dollar film--gargantuan by Philippine standards (most medium-sized productions run about half a million dollars or so), but practically peanuts by Hollywood's, where 'small' films run from twenty to forty million dollars. And it's easily the single best thing William Friedkin's ever done.
Yep; you heard me. Not a big fan of The French Connection (simpleminded adaptation of what actually was a very complex case--tho to be fair, Friedkin has a gift for shooting fast-moving vehicles), basically felt that The Exorcist just wasn't evil enough, and no, didn't think Sorcerer other than the appalling squalor of the opening sequences was all that good (check out the original by Clouzot), so I'm not acting as some kind of Friedkin fanboy, or apologist--I just honestly think this is the single best picture Friedkin's been involved in, hands down.
The dramaturgy is obvious enough--Ashley Judd is Agnes, a lonely woman working as a waitress in a lesbian bar; Harry Connick, Jr. is Jerry, her former husband turned convict fresh out of jail, who provides the incentive for Agnes to run to Michael Shannon (reprising the role he originated onstage) who in turn Peter Evans, the polite yet somehow unsettling war veteran and drifter who walks into their lives.
It gets worse from there; Evans could have walked in out of any Philip K. Dick novel, but his obsession over all things insectlike (egg-laying, biting aphids are an especially favorite topic) mark him as perhaps a citizen of one of Dick's later works. Actor-playwright Tracy Letts may deny it or not, but watching Shannon desperately slap away the crawling creatures covering his body you can't help but think of the opening scene in A Scanner Darkly, where Charles Freck scrubs his skin raw with a wire brush.
Dick is a master at depicting paranoid schizophrenia, and at one point that's a doctor's diagnosis of Evans' condition. Shannon's performance as Evans makes the film ostensibly different--he's sweet-natured enough that you understand why Agnes takes to him, but there's something coiled inside him, something not quite kosher that you can't put a finger on (at least not until the aphids start biting) that keeps you tense, ready to jump out of your seat. It's as if Travis Bickle where considerably more socially adept but still missing a few synapses, and you can sense the disconnect.
But if Evans is the baroque touch that sets the play apart from most other chamber dramas, Agnes is the mediating consciousness through which the story is filtered, and it's Agnes' fate that ultimately concerns us. I've read several articles on the film that mourn just how unlucky Agnes is with men, switching from a wife-beater to a full-on psychotic, or how the film is making some kind of statement on the readiness of victimized women to believe in someting impractical, just to deny--or at least temporarily escape--their own reality (seems to me I've known my share of these women all my life)...but there seems to be another, possibly more interesting way to look at this material, and the clue would come from author J.G. Ballard.
I've always loved his early disaster novels--The Crystal World is possibly my favorite--but perhaps the strangest element in the novels (and short stories, for that matter) are the protagonists' motives for doing what they do. Survival is actually not as important as the need to assimilate and perhaps integrate into their minds the nature and full meaning of their circumstances (flood, high wind, crystallization). In short, more important than food and shelter is the gift of understanding, and of belonging in one's radically altered world.
Thus Agnes' story. She's running away from her violent husband, yes, but finding Evans isn't a tragedy, it's a triumph. Evans manages to make her world make sense to her; manages to give her an all-encompassing enemy on which she can pin all her troubles and sufferings--and the troubles and sufferings of the entire world along the way--and she embraces his offering with the fervor of a truly lost woman. Never mind that the path Evans offers is ultimately self-destructive--survival is just not a priority.
I'm not being perverse; or at least, I'm being no more perverse than Ballard, who in Crash managed to find sexual pleasure in the gaping wounds and mangled limbs and massive bruises found in car-crash victims (in this Ballard anticipated the automobile apoethesis of Princess Diana--possibly the only truly interesting event in her otherwise tabloid life). For Ballard inner space is the only space worth exploring, and it's the landscape of the cerebrum and spinal cord that holds any fascination; an extreme pathological case such as Agnes'--and I submit that only Agnes would hold any lasting interest--seems almost ready-made for inclusion in the ranks of his all-too-strange literature.
Agnes' way of willing herself into a perfect (and perfectly self-destructing) love is just the kind of mental jiu-jitsu that Ballard's protagonists perform, and Evans' insane scenarios are just the kind of apocalypticaly paranoid situations Dick's protagonists find themselves in. You might say Agnes is a Ballard protagonist trying to create her way out of a Dickian situation.
Friedkin's direction couldn't be better; I can't before this imagine Friedkin as being a particularly appropriate filmmaker to translate Ballard, much less Dick, to the big screen but he seems to have performed the for me near-impossible task of doing both, and in the same film. It might be helpful in a limited sense to remember that he's dealt with single-room dramas before (the final half hour of The Exorcist) and even dealt with crazed war vets before ("Nightcrawlers," one of the more memorable episodes in the short-lived Twilight Zone TV revival), but evoking the spirit of two of the strangest, most philosophically complex writers in all of science fiction--that's quite a feat.
It helps that Friedkin helps maintain the claustrophobia of the setting--enhances it, in fact, knowing that confining much of the story in Agnes' little motel room is key to the film's power (he seems to be operating on the principle that a stew cooks much faster in a smaller covered pot than it does in a large uncovered one). It also helps that his sound design is superb--the overhead ceiling fan becomes a storm of rotor blades a la Apocalypse Now; the hiss of the creaky air-conditioner can almost be mistaken for the seething hiss of bugs crawling through the carpet. Even the sex is superbly realized; you see here as you so rarely see in other Hollywood films the sticky languor of fucking in ninety-degree temperatures--the dripping sweat, the stretched saliva rope, the moist skin glowing with trapped heat. Occasionally for punctuation Friedkin would zoom in--not the dizzying zooms of '70s cinema, but a quick, half-hearted zoom, almost like a hiccup. Don't know what to make of that--a holdover from his '70s filmmaking, or something he's just trying on for size?
As for the cast--Harry Connick Jr. adds to his gallery of wonderfully disreputable characters; Shannon is almost frighteningly self-contained, you can't imagine him having any life outside of his character's. As for Judd, she does the kind of intense, take-no-prisoners acting that Charlize Theron won one of those gold doorstops for, only here Judd doesn't resort to stunt makeup--the performance of her career, easy. Wonderful, intriguing film.
121 Coalition was hoping that the House Committee on Foreign Affairs would mark up House Res. 121 this past week and move the fight for “Comfort Women” justice forward, but that was not the case. On the flip side (haha) this means there is more time to spread the word and educate our friends and communities about the stories of the lolas and their fight for justice. You can’t really expect anyone to vote on something unless they really know the issue and believe in their hearts that there is only one thing to do: support House Resolution 121.
I had an amazing weekend sharing lola stories and presenting House Res. 121 to the Filipino American Coalition of Florida. They are now warriors in the ”Comfort Women’s” fight for justice. Remember the resolution encourages Japan to make a formal apology to the survivors and to take full responsibility of these war crimes. As we think about and commemorate our valiant Filipino War Veterans this day, let’s give silent thanks for the courage and the wisdom of the young Filipinas taken against their will during WW2. They are another kind of war veteran.
To read more about the Filipino American Coalition of Florida’s response to House Resolution 121, go to
Post: Filipino-American Coalition of Florida Support House Res. 121
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
If you press the rectangular button on the leftmost corner of the little video screen, that should be play.
Thanks to Festival staff Areum Jeong, still helping me out above and beyond the call of duty!
Actually, I'm only on for all of two seconds, long enough to deliver a sound byte, what's left of what must've been a twenty minute interview. I like to think my few seconds of fame left an impression, though...
They did do another interview for closing night; I wonder if they ever aired that...?
Monday, May 28, 2007
Roughly half of it promises to be good--Raimi obviously has a great deal of affection for The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church); he directs the actor as if he were Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath--a tragedy on two legs--giving him a creation image worth of Genesis (The Sandman, rising out of a sand pile like an apparition in a desert storm), and a climactic confrontation that through sheer grandeur beats anything Peter Jackson tried in his far more bloated King Kong remake (there's nothing like lighting your monster with spotlights from underneath and giving him a rippling-sand surface, including the occasional wandering hollow block (oddly enough, that rippling effect hearkens back to an unintentional (but still remembered, still beloved) side effect found in the original Kong model, back in '33)).
The symbiote from space that lands oh-so-conveniently behind Peter Parker's car (Too fantastic? In a movie about a youth turned superhero through a spider-bite?) seems like an equally interesting challenge, for two reasons: 1) it gives Raimi a chance to pay homage to (rip off?) both Superman 3 and The Blob; 2) it enables Raimi to play variations on Maguire's Wholesome Boy image, paint our hero a few of shades of gray, perhaps even do a few song-and-dance numbers, though the end results aren't all that appetizing (possessed by the evil alien blob, Maguire turns into John Travolta). Even James Franco as Harry Osborne (who I often disliked, mainly because his one-note "Spiderman must die!" mantra grew old in the second movie) finally gets his moment of glory setting Maguire up for a fall, then flashing his James Dean smile (a Franco trademark) at the humiliated Maguire through a cafe window (though I'm less happy about the amnesia bit--what was that all about again?).
I'll give credit to Raimi for trying to visualize what fighting on a swinging web line must be like: at every point in their battles you're aware that the hero isn't flying, he's flinging himself, from building to building, and that at any moment he could fling himself too far--or not far enough--miss, and spatter himself all over the New York city pavement. Raimi cuts a tad too quickly for my taste here, (in his Evil Dead movies I thought his editing was better--lively without being extravagant), but his swinging footage has a jerky, nervous energy all its own. I'm not happy with the CGI, but to Raimi's credit he seems more master of them than mastered by them, less concerned with making the effects realistic and more with having junky fun with them, trying to capture--and surpass--the helter-skelter quality of the battles found in the comic books.
The odd man out in all this, apparently, is Topher Grace's Venom. Two predicaments (The Sandman, an alien symbiote) is stretching things; add an ever-present threat (Harry Osborne) and you're really pushing it; throw in yet another supervillain (Venom) and that's the straw that breaks the spider's back. I'm not ready to accept or try feel any sense of menace from said character, much less feel any sympathy for him (the way I'm asked to do for, say, The Sandman); at the point when he's being created (roughly more than halfway through the picture), it's time to pull things together into something resembling a reasonably tight resolution, not add more complications to the mix (speaking of coincidences, what was he doing praying in the same Catholic Church where Parker was struggling with his symbiote? (Yes, I mentioned--and dismissed--the unlikeliness of coincidences earlier; I also mentioned something about spiders' backs)). Even Venom's eventual fate feels arbitrary, tacked on (The Sandman's, however, seems beautifully melancholic and ambivalent).
As for the actors--Maguire does well enough, until he tries to do bad; Dunst still screams helplessly from the sidelines (I'd call her bad singing a masterpiece of characterization though, if I were more sure that it was characterization); Bryce Dallas Howard looks nice but seems more like an obligatory add-on (if I remember her character right, she was very important to the comic book). J.K. Simmons is given much more to do (always a good thing), and does it well; ditto Elizabeth Banks (last remembered trying to sweet talk her monstrous hubby into lowering his guard in James Gunn's Slither) and Mageina Tovah (not to mention that to these jaded eyes they're both quite hot).
I've heard criticism of the movie's morality and while I can't dispute specific points, my knee-jerk reaction is: holy moley, what's the big deal? When there are movies out there with far more questionable baggage (Apocalypto, anyone?)?
Speaking of moral issues--Stan Lee does his usual cameo in this picture, and as usual my short hairs bristle at the sight of him (so when's he going to finally give due credit to Kirby, Ditko, et. al.?).
Overall, it's passable entertainment, but the evidence at hand suggests that maybe for the fourth installment they should be getting some other filmmaker.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
A piece of Sith
Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo
Tell me that you love me and your love is still true.
You saw the Phantom mess, the Clones waded through
Don't leave while you got a dollar left to woo.
I've done all you wanted, what's left for me to say?
Double the action, thrice the CGI frappe.
Even got Tom Stoppard to make the drama play
(Though did he make a diff'rence? Can't tell either way)
Don't the FX matter, the ships that go "wheet!"?
Don't all that magma heat the soles of your feet?
Don't the colored flashlights send tingles up your seat?
Wasn't all that money spent good enough a treat?
Even put a polit'ckal subtext in for free
'Bout how "if not a friend, then you're my enemy"
Michael Moore it ain't, but wait a week or three--
My inbox'll fill with right-wing calumny.
My bro Coppola got me a dialogue coach
'Cuz he knows I'd rather handle a robot roach
So what if I let Hayden in his worries poach?
Humans are always so damned hard to approach.
But enough! I've called in the real big guns now;
Recycled the best stuff from Star Wars, and how:
Like that double-sunset, and James Earl Jones' voice--wow!
Can't you tell that I'll do anything for thou?
Don't you say that we're all done, that we are through
Four movies, and I still can't get through to you.
What do you expect, when I can't even spell "poo?"
Please--hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo
Interview with a Jedi
(We are pleased to bring you an exclusive interview via internet of Jedi Master Yoda, one of the oldest knights of the Jedi Council, on his latest (second earliest, if counted chronologically) picture, Attack of the Clones...)
Q: Master Yoda, what do you think of the film?
A: Very pleased, I am. Much money spent to make it, though more will be spent watching it, I am sure.
Q: We're sure too. But surely that isn't the only measure of a picture's success? What do you think of the film itself?
A: Groundbreaking it is. Much advance technology used--like digital cameras for capturing images. Much used here that was never used before.
Q: How about the acting? The dialogue?
A: Acting? Really happened, everything did. There is no acting.
Q: You mean when Hayden Christensen, who plays Anakin Skywalker, is seriously injured, it was for...
A: Fine now Anakin is. Genuine pain did he endure. A Jedi Knight knows not how to "act."
Q: Uh...okay. So you're saying that the dialogue wasn't made up, or written down in a script?
A: Explain this to you I will: really happened, everything did. Wrote it all down creator George Lucas did, from what he had seen and heard. For Lucas, real is the world Anakin and I live in. Fantasy this is not.
Q: Are you saying that the world of Star Wars is so real to Lucas that it's as if he's just recording what's happening as it goes along, or that Lucas is so deluded he can't tell reality from fantasy anymore?
A: Deluded Lucas is not. Must I show you my lightsabre to prove point?
Q: No thanks. But even if he was just recording what he had heard, what about accusations that the dialogue in Attack is flat and trite, and that the characterization is cardboard-cartoonish?
A: When happen something does, why change? When something someone says, why modify? Really did it happen, really did he say it. When changed then what really happened no longer it is.
Q: But don't you think editing, cutting down, streamlining is important? Don't you think improvement is important?
A: A Jedi need not improve. Do he only what he has always done well, over and over, again and again. Lived nine hundred years I did not, not to learn this valuable lesson.
Q: In other words, Lucas did not need to learn to write dialogue, he just had to learn to record it from what he heard--in his head, perhaps?
A: A Jedi need not know how to write. Such trivialities important are not. A Jedi need only listen, and learn. Or hire someone else for him to do that . Valuable was writer Jonathan Hales in that regard, and well paid he was. A Jedi must know how to compensate well, for services rendered.
Q: Need a Jedi know how to direct a film?
A: What mean you?
Q: Another major accusation leveled against Lucas with regards to "Attack of the Clones" is that he doesn't know how to direct a film to save his life. He's got some talent with visual design, and making up stories, but that's it. In fact he hasn't done a good job of directing in years.
A: And what of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope? What of American Grafitti?
Q: Some say American Grafitti hit because Lucas had a terrific cast (which he had to hire an acting coach to direct for him). That he got the look for the film thanks largely to cinematographer Haskell Wexler's help. That his one original idea was to recall that his adolescence was full of rock 'n roll--the only instance of genuine observation he ever made in his career.
As for Star Wars Episode IV it's said that he had the help of two talented people: Marcia Lucas, who edited the footage he shot into a tight and coherent whole, and John Williams, who pulled one of the few decent music scores he ever did out of his--uh, head--to save Lucas'--um, film.
A: Full of doubts you seem, young one. Wish you to see my lightsabre?
Q: No thank you. Really.
A: Stupid Lucas is not. When a look he needed for American Grafitti, asked Wexler he did. When Star Wars he had to edit, marry Mrs. Lucas he did. When talent Lucas needed, hire talent he did; enough money he had, in later years especially. Personal ability matters not to Lucas as much as final results--or better, final boxoffice returns. Personal authorship matters not as much as copyrights and franchises. In short--
Q: --a Jedi need not know how to direct a film?
A: Learn fast you do, young one.
Q: Isn't this a betrayal of everything he once stood for? Lucas used to want to change the way we make films from the usual Hollywood studio mold. Now he seems to be part of the problem, only he's more powerful than the studios ever were, and his movies are duller and less emotionally involving than the standard studio product.
A: Name you at least one better 'standard studio product.'
A: Inferior special effects.
Q: I'm not talking about special effects.
A: From celluloid filmmaking has Lucas moved to digital filmmaking. No small revolution is the man staging; in many ways he is the way we make films changing.
Q: But it's all technological change--from projected celluloid to projected video, from model spaceships to digital constructs, from human actors to virtual actors--and it's all moving away from the real world as we know it. Has he tried telling a story well through non-technological means, through good acting and dialogue and perhaps a little inspiration? Has he tried telling a new story, instead of f--uh, fiddling around with the same one he's been telling for the past twenty-plus years?
A: Howard the Duck. The Radioland Murders. New both stories were when come out they did.
A: Unfair you are. Forgiven he should be for his mistakes.
Q: Mistakes like The Phantom Menace? Not if he's as rich and powerful as he is. Not if he has so much money that he can afford to insulate himself from the world and yet affect that world as thoroughly as he does. Philip K. Dick once wrote about a man called Dr. Bloodmoney, a cripple in a wheelchair suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, only the cripple had the ability to change the world slowly, subtly, using the power of his mind, transforming it into the same paranoid-schizophrenic world he was familiar with. Lucas is like that, only he uses cash flow instead of mental powers.
A: Now deluded you sound. Like fantastic screenplay your scenario is.
Q: And what does Lucas sound like? Does the world Lucas seems to inhabit really exist? Do you really exist? From where I'm sitting you basically consist of a bunch of phrases flipped around to resemble alien grammar, generated by some invisible keyboard. How do I know that at the other end you're not really Lucas defending himself?
A: Exist I do; of that certain am I. You it is who has doubts, you it is then who has the problems.
Lucas my creator is; from him flows my existence, flows the wisdom I teach, which nothing less and nothing more is the Star Wars philosophy. Fount of wisdom I may be, of which he the true source is. Merely convey do I his words to the awaiting world, without change or modification. Really is this how Lucas speaks; really is this how Lucas thinks.
Q: Now that explains a lot. Thank you, Master Yoda--
A: Wait; go you must not. Confusion I sense in you. Anger.
Q: Not really, I--
A: No. Confusion leads to fear, which leads to anger, which leads to tension, which leads to stomach cramps, which leads to suffering. Relieve I can your suffering.
Q: Thank you, Master Yoda, but I--
A: Type in you must a valid Visa number, by an expiration date followed--
Q: Master Yoda, I really don't think--
A: Come over to the dark side, Luke.
Q: Mr. Lucas, thank you, but I have to go now. I really, really have to go. Thank you very much for the interview.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:
I submit to you that Gregory Hoblit's latest film isn't a crime thriller or even legal thriller at all; one just has to see Anthony Hopkins' Ted Crawford make his furtive way round a swimming pool, observing his wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz) and her police lover Rob Nunally (Billy Burke) in a watery clinch, to see what the picture is really up to: a chance for Sir Hopkins to strut once more in Hannibal Lecter mode.
Consider: Hopkins is much too old for the physical demands of playing a serial killer (the last time he did, five years ago, Brett Ratner had to cut around the fact that he was using a stunt double much of the time). He is also too familiar to audiences now, is probably aware that they may be tired--is himself probably tired--of the role. If Sir Hopkins were to don yon hockey mask one more time, he would be laughed off the screen; he needed a new shtick, a new way to entertain the audience.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
And here's an article I wrote on arguably the best of Fleischer's films, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor:
I Yam What I Yam
Max and Dave Fleischer took E.C. Segar's popular cartoon character "Popeye the Sailor" and ran with it, creating a series of shorts from 1933 to 1942 that rivaled Disney's Mickey Mouse in popularity--which was amazing, considering Mickey was a cute little mouse with big eyes and a squeaky voice, and Popeye was a balding, one-eyed roughhouse who spoke questionable grammar with a growl.
Perhaps the peak of the Fleischers' achievement (and possibly peak achievement of animated art, period) were three two-reeler shorts lasting almost twenty minutes, and in full color (Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936); Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1937); Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939)), and perhaps the best of these was Popeye the Sailor meets Sinbad the Sailor.
From the opening upward pan, following a winding path as it crosses ever more fearsome chained animals and monsters (tigers, gorillas, dragons, etc.) to a castle on a mountaintop, to Sinbad's gruff entrance through the castle doors ("Popeye" regular Bluto, playing the legendary sailor) slapping down a pair of chained lions on either side of him and demanding "WHO'S the most re-MAR-kable extra-OR-dinary fellow?" the short is a masterpiece of characterization. Sinbad rants and roars, walking across his island kingdom and showing off trophies from various adventures, including a roc (a legendary bird the size of a B-52 Bomber) and a two-headed giant; the animals roar in reply, fearfully agreeing with him.
Sinbad's kingdom is rendered all the more amazing by the Fleischers' "stereoptical" process, basically cardboard cut-outs and models on a turntable, the camera at table's edge shooting through a pane of glass where the animated figure is placed; the result is 3-D images with more depth and solidity than is possible with even Disney's multiplane camera (a system where the camera shoots through several layers of glass, developed for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)). The illusion of depth is reinforced by lights shifting along with the animated figure, creating shadows that move as the figure moves (the lights are colored, adding to the fabulous atmosphere and sense of mystery). Island and song establish Sinbad as a legendary and powerful adventurer, master of all he sees, challenged by none--only suddenly, from far away at sea, someone is singing.
Popeye's song compared to Sinbad's is simpler: he introduces himself, tells of the source of his strength (spinach), and says he'll fight only those who aren't on the "up and square." There's some bragging, but it's the brag of a man with a reason--to warn others to "keep on good behav'or"--not necessarily to promote himself. The exchange is reprised later, when Sinbad again goes into his arrogant rhetoric, all the island's animals responding in chorus ("WHO's the most phe-NO-menal extra-SPE-cial kind of fellow?" "YOOSE--Sinbad the Sailor!"), only on Sinbad's umpteenth refrain, Popeye inserts a different answer: "Popeye the Sailor!" Extravagant bombast trumped by direct response; Sinbad slaps his face in frustration.
There are Popeye episodes that are more experimental ("Wotta Nitemare" 1939), more thrilling (Lost and Foundry (1937) and What--No Spinach? (1936) come to mind) and perhaps funnier (Hospitaliky (1937), with its twist on the classic situation where Popeye beats up Bluto), but I'd say none were as beautiful (the background drawings here include trees with eyes and a screaming mouth), or made as expressive use of animation, including Fleischer's "stereoptical" process (Popeye walks through an underground cavern that glows with jeweled light; an extra-long "3-D" shot includes a giant rock in the shape of a skull); none set up a villain as memorably or magnificently as Bluto's Sinbad, complete with a menagerie of singing beasts and his own theme song (music by Sammy Timberg, who sings the song himself).
It's possible to read Sinbad as representing all that is exotic and threatening about the East--an anti-Oriental bias if you like--but with Bluto playing him, the interpretation (or accusation) doesn't quite hold: Bluto's too loud, with too much swagger to him--too "American," with all the negative connotations that word implies. Popeye on the other hand represents America's best aspects, one-eyed homeliness and all; think of bulldogs and mastiffs, of grizzled men mangling the English language, of all that grit and leather hiding a heart of gold. And if Popeye is able to cut through Sinbad/Bluto's bull, that's plainspoken American honesty cutting through pretence with the help of a leafy vegetable (Superman hails from another planet, Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider; Segar's is the only superhero to celebrate the relatively more realistic virtues of good nutrition). Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor represents for me the epitome of Yankee ingenuity and imagination and spirit--easily the greatest piece of American animation ever made.
(First published in High Life Magazine, October 2005)
(Comments? Email me at email@example.com)
Monday, May 21, 2007
The Indie Vision jury--Korean filmmaker Lee Yoon-ki, me, and Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel. The lone girl in the group is Festival Vice-Director Ancha Flubacher-Rhim. This was outside some cultural center for our Juror's Dinner.
The Juror's Dinner. I'm seated between Festival programmer Yoo un-sung and Jiri, in a traditional Korean meal of epic proportions (to get this shot I had to either cut off the picture's sides or shrink the people in it to the size of cockroaches, and I didn't want cockroaches). Poor Jiri couldn't eat anything, so for most of the dinner he lounged in his chair and struck a pose not inappropriate to the cover of GQ Magazine.
Standing in front of the ice sculpture at the festival's closing ceremony reception (they served whole platters of fresh salmon sashimi, and huge bowls of bright red strawberries (Jeonju, apparently, is famous for its strawberries)), crammed between filmmaker Yoshiharu Ueoka (The Look of Love) and Takushi Tsubokawa (Aria). On extreme right is Kazakhstan's most famous film critic, Gulnara Abikeyeva, who was kind enough to present me a copy of her book, The Heart of the World: Films From Central Asia.
I pulled Takushi aside and tried out my theory re: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz being the inspiration for Aria and in reply--he could just be trying to be polite--he put a finger to his lips and whispered: "don't tell anyone!"
I had to pull Korean actor Jung Chan (Jeong Chan) away from the mob of schoolgirls and pretty autograph hounds surrounding him to take this picture, thinking: this might lend the blog a much-needed influx of Korean fangirl readers. Note the "V for Victory" hand signal, customary in Korean photos.
Outside the crematorium--sorry, that was Jiri's joke, but I couldn't resist--the complex where the festival was to have its closing ceremonies, I prevailed upon poor Areum Jeong (her official title was, if I remember right "jury coordinator;" I called her "nanny and nursemaid to sixteen cranky foreigners," heroically obliging gal that she was) to stop herding us for a moment and snap this photo of us three: Jiri, his lovely wife Olga Menzelová-Kelymanová, and I, moments before we stepped on that damned red carpet/shooting gallery.
And of course, Jiri was kind enough to lend me his wife for a moment to take this pic. Yes, Olga, if you're reading this blog, I'm a shameless sexist pig, so sue me.
All good things must come to an end, the more wonderful the more inevitable I suspect, and the Jeonju Festival was no exception. The festival did have this lovely tradition--all the volunteers (they gave us plenty of souvenirs, but the one I really wanted were those cool yellow rain jackets) lined up outside the crema--sorry--arts and culture complex and sang us a specially composed song that wished us farewell and hoped we would come again. I couldn't resist; I had to grab poor Areum again (or was it Jeong Chan?) and ask him/her to take this picture of me with the volunteers.
Couldn't sing the song (though I did manage to wave the "V for Victory" sign), but for a moment there I enjoyed the illusion that I was one of them, singing the guests goodbye until next year's festival. Till then--an-yeong ni gaseo, or in Tagalog, paalam.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Near the shrine were some recreations (I suspect they were recreations--they looked as if they were in too good condition) of traditional Korean houses, complete with wood-frame doors held together by Jeonju's famous paper (extremely fragile--I almost put my finger through the door (Almost. Honest.), and centrally heated floors. The floors makes sense when you remember that heat rises from the floors to warm the rest of the house, that Koreans sit cross-legged on the floor to eat, and that they eventually sleep on it (I'd hate to think what the homeowners paid by way of fire insurance, though).
Note the roof--well, what little of the roof is included in the picture. Japanese roofs tend to have straightforward lines, while Chinese roofs have ostentatious curves. The curve of the roof of a Korean house or building is so much subtler, a sort of swoop between a Japanese and Chinese roof. As many a Korean has put it, it's like "the sweep of a bird's wings, about to take flight."
Stickers and posters of the festival were everywhere, including every business on Cinema Street; the streets were closed off for a week. Jeonju supports its festival big time.
The other guy I haven't the slightest idea who he is.
A pansori singer and his drummer, which couldn't help but remind me of Im Kwon Taek's Beyond the Years. From what I understand watching the film, the relatonship between singer and drummer can be professional, adversarial (which means the singing will suffer) or as intimate as between a husband and his wife; two men who've been friends since childhood; a police officer and his partner; two veteran soldiers standing side-by-side in battle. I don't know about these two, but they certainly performed as if they'd been doing it for years.
Friday, May 18, 2007
You have to give credit to director Curtis Hanson; he tries his level best not to repeat himself. After making his bones with suspense ("The Bedroom Window;" "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle;" "The River Wild") he does a noir epic ("L.A. Confidential,") that wins him a few Oscar nominations, then follows that up with a comedy on writers ("Wonder Boys"), a gritty urban fairy-tale about a rap artist ("8 Mile"), and now this. I find the post "L.A." films to be the most interesting ("8 Mile" being my favorite so far)--Hanson attempting the unenviable task of throwing away the crutches of genre filmmaking (suspense, noir), to focus on character and human relationships.
It doesn't help matters that poker is hardly the most visually lively of games. Critics have compared this picture to Robert Rossen's classic "The Hustler," often unfavorably, and no wonder: with all the overhead lamps hanging over pool tables the players look almost Bergmanish in their shadowy, black-and-white intensity (poker on the other hand occurs in a bright space lit solely for the benefit of TV cameras). And you can do trick shots with pool, shots that Rossen photographs simply, the better to capture their impossibility (my favorite has the cue ball put such english on a ball that it shot forward, curved around backwards in a small parabola, and sent a third ball into its pocket).
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Pascale (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her two sons Thierry (Jeremy Renier, who also starred in the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant) and Francois (Yannick Renier, Jeremy's real-life brother) in a lovely countryside mansion owned by their father (and Pascale's former husband), Luc (Patrick Descamps). Thierry and Francois are overgrown puppies, a tad too frisky for poor Pascale--when she goes out dressed they make fun of her clothes; when she mentions having talked to their next-door neighbor Jan (Kris Cuppens), the two brothers burlesqe the neighbor dry-humping their mother.
Pascale isn't amused; in her eyes, she's wasted years raising these two, and she deserves something of her own--in effect, a little bed-and-breakfast joint, run by her and Jan (who really is her lover), financed by the sale of the beautiful countryside mansion their father left to the two boys.
Lafosse keeps everything teetering in a delicate balance; no one has clear claim to our affections, no one deserves our total enmity. Pascale might seem to be a monster of a mother, but her scenes with Jan reveal just how frustrated and lonely she is, what a deeply unhappy woman she has become; likewise, the two boys can easily be seen as the victims, only it quickly becomes clear how spoiled they are, how callow and selfish they can be. As Pascale becomes even more desperate, leaving the boys behind to stay at a friend's apartment, her abandonment is balanced by Thierry's ever more naked contempt for his mother (Francois on the other hand is the single sweetest person in the film, but one can't help feeling a little contempt at his passivity).
The film contains a different other level of irony, something I couldn't help but notice looking at all three onscreen, then later at the father: Thierry, who hates Pascale but is close to Luc (their father), seems to resemble Pascale; Francois, who dearly loves his mother but is indiffeent to Luc, resembles Luc.
The odd correspondences seem to confirm so many things people say about relationships--that like does repel like (Pascale hates Thierry's--her own, in effect--stubborness; Thierry stubbornly refuses to understand Pascale's needs), that predesposition does transmit itself across generations (Francois' tenderness towards Pascale evoke the feelings Luc at one point must have harbored for her; Thierry's bond with his father looks to be a distant echo of the attraction Pascale once felt for Luc). When they yell and suffer and inflict pain on one another it's doubly distressing, because you can see the genetic and behavioral similiarities in all four, similarities that they either pointedly ignore, or remain utterly unaware of.
The film ends with a long-take shot that gives an eloquent sense of closure to the story, puts everyone's questions and demands into perspective, and gives us the true value of the property in question, compared to what had just been irrevocably lost.
Chrigu is a documentary on the simplest, most potent subject matter I can think of: one's own mortality. It's Christian Ziörjen's coverage of his own exprience with cancer, and inevitable demise--a well nigh unbearably weighty topic, you might imagine, except for the protagonist's insistence that "the movie shouldn't be sad." It isn't--it's amiable, funny, courageous, anything but. The director (with the help of co-director Jan Gassmann) stuffs his film with footage of his travels (a beautiful interlude in India, and on the River Ganges), some early music-videos he directed (you might call this his audition piece), scenes of time spent with friends and family. He manages to keep most of the film remarkably free of the self-pity and pathos it could potentially have, and even displays a sense of irony (at one point he notes that a quiet moment in the film is actually filler to pad out the running time). Not much else one can say: it's undisputably powerful stuff; at some points somewhat self-indulgent--but when someone is making his first and final feature, one can hardly begrudge him the time spent or the minor flaws (I would have loved to know more, for instance, about the reasons behind his tight-lipped policy towards his mother--there's some affection there, all right, why wasn't there more? And didn't he have a girlfriend?). All in all, I wish I could leave as well-made a Last Statement.
Alessandro Angelini's L'Aria salata (Salty Air, 2006) pretty much has you in a death-grip from the start, and doesn't for the length of the film let go. It follows Fabio (Giorgo Pasotti) as a social worker in a penitentiary--he has high standards, but he never puts on airs; most convicts like him and confide in him. When he's confronted by Sparti (Giorgio Colangeti), his father--a man he's never seen, who has spent the past twenty years in prison for murder--he's confronted by an unenviable dilemma. Should he tell his father who he is? Should he treat him like any other prisoner? Less kindly, perhaps? More?
Angelini directs in a straightforward manner, keeping to medium shots that suggest the claustrophobia of prison, and simple staging that at one point turns into a bravura sequence (inspired, I suspect, by something similar in Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) where Sparti enlists his fellow prisoners in an impromptu skit that humiliates the prison warden. Angelini relies on a strong script (which he wrote, with the help of Angelo Carbone) and even stronger acting--I don't know where Colangeti came from, and I've seen only one other film in which he's appeared (his debut in fact, in Pasolini, un delitto italiano (Pasolini, an Italian Crime, 1995)). Don't remember him in it, unfortunately, but I'm hardly about to forget him now. As Sparti, Colangeti is amazing; he incarnates the hardened convict, by turns arrogant and subversive, and only by increments and tiny moments do you eventually notice the cracks spreading over his facade, caused by his son. Part of the power of Colangeti's performance is that you're never quite sure how he feels about this, whether he's delighted or dismayed, excited or wary, invigorated or enervated, and you feel you need to know. One of the best films in the program, and my fellow jurors Mr. Jiri Menzel and Mr. Lee Yoon-ki thought highly enough of it to give it a special mention, to which I readily agreed.
Ying Liang's Ling Yi Ban (The Other Half, 2006) starts off looking like a documentary, with people directly addressing the camera; turns out they are consulting lawyers about the merits of their respective cases, which run the gamut from marital problems to malpractice to potential industrial disasters.
Ying Liang (who directed the film and wrote it with producer / companion Peng Shan) likes to mix these testimonies with the story of Xiaofen (playing herself), a law clerk in the same office, whose loser boyfriend Deng Gang (also playing himself) is constantly getting into trouble--at one point poor Xiaofen finds herself being interviewed by one of the office's lawyers (concerning, of course, the no-good Deng Gang), and awareness of the incongruity (I should be sitting on the other side of this table) seems to make her every bit as uncomfortable as relating the actual circumstances of the case.
Documentary mixed with drama, fictional footage mixed with nonfiction (at one point the threatened industrial disaster does happen, and Ying Liang inserts actual footage of the true-life incident), with Ying interchanging episodes of grim reality (the industrial disaster) with doses of absurdist humor (one client petulantly tosses her tea drink at the lawyer/camera). Ying's film is based on actual details, but he's not averse to resorting to a freely experimental spirit--the final shot seems inspired by something Rene Clair did in Entr'acte (1924), only here it's meant to emphasize something else entirely different: no matter what all the king's horses and men will do, Humpty Dumpty will not be put together again.
Some critics have complained about the final revelation, how it seems a tad too optimistic for the film's overall tone, but I for one have no problem with it--I think that it too is representative of what's happening in this swiftly changing society. Wild coincidences and listless lives and great disillusionment and major disasters will commingle with crude slapstick and sudden success stories, and this isn't too much at all, it's China. Nor are they--or we, for that matter--out of it.
It took some discussion, but on our last jury meeting Mr. Menzel, Mr. Lee and I eventually agreed on the Indie Vision winner, and wrote our justification thusly:
"The motto for this year's JIFF is 'Freedom, Independence, Communication.' All 12 of the Indie Vision films are we believe exemplars of these elements--they are independent of mainstream cinema, they are expressions of the filmmakers' will towards freedom, and they communicate these values with a strong voice.
"For the winning film, we believe it is an excellent portrait of the problems faced by modern society, and that it carries a strong environmental message; we also believe it makes inventive use of the voiceover and stylized acting. For these reasons we give the Woo-suk Award to Ying Liang's The Other Half."
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
That said, there's a memorable streak of deadpan melancholy in the film, embodied by Bensaïdi's own expressionless performance as Kamel, the assassin at the center of the film's plot. He's perfectly matched by Nezra Rahile's Kenza, a traffic enforcer standing on her lonely concrete isle, guiding passing cars as if they were sheep (in her spare time she rents out her cellphone to walk-by customers). The two lonelyhearts' eyes meet, and WHAM!--instant fatal attraction. Negligible confection, perhaps, but a tasty one, nevertheless.
Zacharias Kunuk & Norman Cohn's The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006)bases its story on the eponymous diaries of the real-life explorer, but the film's true focus is on Awa (Pakak Innukshuk)--in 1922, the last remaining shaman--and his attempt to hold on to the spirits that give him authority and power. Christianity has crept in and taken root amongst the Inuit people, and they regard Awa and his followers as little better than devil-worhippers.
It's a theme that, sadly, holds relevance even in the world today, where people insist on playing the conflict between religions as a zero-sum game, and words like 'tolerance' and 'compromise' aren't even considered to be in the vocabulary.
Kunuk and Cohn are interested in telling more than just Awa's story; in at least two lengthy shots, they meticulously record his spiritual history--how he came to be, and what his belief in spirits is all about. It's as if given the opportunity to listen, Rasmussen and his partner point a video camera at the man and record his words for posterity, and to hell with the audience if they find themselves falling asleep as a consequence.
Kunuk and Cohn record other things as well: the harsh beauty of the frozen landscape; Awa's daughter Apak (a real looker) and her sexual fantasies (fellow Inuit say she's making love with the dead); the claustrophobic ambience of an igloo's cramped quarters. The film--especially its finale--has a primitive yet haunting power, arising as much from its imagery as from the tragedy of its central character.
Stefano Odoardi's Una Ballata Bianca (The White Ballad, 2006) is a beautiful enigma of a film, about an elderly couple living together in a house; the woman is dying, and the two must come to terms with their eventual separation.
Odoardi films the couple entirely without dialogue, preferring instead to wallpaper the film with near-nonstop interior monologue; he eschews natural acting in favor of carefully arranged poses, in different positions throughout the rooms. Along with this couple he includes a pair of playing children, and a mysterious young woman.
The whole could easily be called pretentious; I like to think it reveals something of what a clogged and clotted thing a longstanding marriage can be, with bitter grudges, festering resentments, years of habitual self-absorption blocking the way to free and honest communication between a husband and his wife (the children are Odoardi's way of contrasting the directness of youth (the children simply come together and play) with the couples' emotional inertness). Of the more experimental efforts, this might be my favorite.
Ron Havilio's Potosi, le temps du voyage (Potosi, the Journey, 2007) is a family's epic journey across South America, recreating the parents' honeymoon odyssey over thirty years before. The trip brings them to Potosi, whose silver mines once financed the Spanish empire. Havilio and his wife Jacqueline scrupulously took snapshots of the people they encountered; years later, Havilio and his wife--accompanied by their three now-grown daughters--pore through these photos, trying to rediscover their real-life models.
Part travelogue, part recollection, part revelation of a Jewish family's inner workings, part testament of the endless fascination found in a single photograph, part chronicle of the sufferings both past and present of Potosi's silver miners (a persistent theme--it would be cruel to call it a running joke--in the film is that Havilo can come, go, raise three daughters, return, but the miners are still overworked and underpaid), the film is a rich tapestry of memories and relationships spanning continents and decades both. At four hours, it's a touch too ambitious--after leaving Potosi, Havilio insists on recording in detail the relatively eventless latter end of the journey--but in the context of the power of what had followed, that's a minor complaint. An impressive, poignant achievement.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Jasmine Dellal's When the Road Bends: Tales of a Gypsy Caravan tells the story of five Gypsy bands from Macedonia (in Greece), Romania, India and Spain that go on a 6 week tour promoting Roma music in all its variety.
Gypsies are Northern Indians who emigrated to Western Europe, mixing their culture with the culture of their adopted country to make something unique, often influential--flamenco for example, that most Spanish of dances, is a Roma invention. Even so, they often struggle to survive, eking out a living in the margins of said adopted society. As festival program writer Chu jin-su puts it, "not once have the Gypsies harmed anyone, participated in wars, or conquered another nation. Despite this fact, they have been held in contempt as witches or friends of Satan, forcing them to struggle to retain their culture."
Dellal works with tremendous material--the Gypsies are a lively bunch, full of life and attitude and bravado, and they're not shy in expressing the same in their music. As Dellal put it, Esma, the musical "Queen of the Gypsies," was a far-from-slim middle-aged mother (though an early photo showed a bewitching, dark-eyed beauty), yet whenever she wanted to she easily took over the stage and audience, through sheer star presence and charisma (she has a powerhouse voice, too).
The documentary is a real delight (and I don't think I'm alone feeling this way--the picture won Jeonju's Audience Award), with Dellal intercutting performances with back stories of each band, their tales of poverty and racial discrimination adding context to the sadness you feel in their music. The film's something to look at too--Esme glows under spotlight, like a porcelain doll; Antonio el Pipa strikes a pose and you're held frozen by the drama of his arched back; Nicolae Neacsu of Taraf de Haidouks drags a deliberately broken string over his violin, and you're struck by the ingenuity of this homely instrument. 78-year-old Neacsu's is perhaps my favorite personal story--he supports his family with what he makes as a musician, lives an extremely humble and threadbare life, but when he comes home for the last time, hundreds of musicians show up to honor him.
I asked Dellal how on earth she got Albert Maysles (!?) to shoot the documentary, and she replied "We'd met at a film festival. I mentioned my proposed film on Gypsy music, he mentioned he'd like to shoot it. When I got around to doing this, I called him and said 'Albert, I don't know if you mean what you said about helping me shoot my next film, and I don't have a lot of money to offer, or even the money for a business class ticket' 'No way, just get me the cheapest seat you can find in the internet and let's do it!' he said.
"He's a master at putting people at ease so that his camera can come up close. Like if he were here while I was talking to you, it would almost be as if we were three old friends, and you can say anything to him. He was wonderful."
I asked how she got in contact with Johnny Depp (he had a short interview in the film, explaining that he came to be a big fan of gypsy music after having lived with them during the shooting of Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried (2000)). "I sent dozens of emails and packages to everyone I knew who said they could contact him. A package with sample footage got through.
"I have a story about him. We had a Romani (Gypsy) guy named George working as a soundman for the film and when I went to interview Depp, George asked me to deliver a letter. The short letter asked for an autograph for George's sons, explaining that his children were big fans of the star but were ashamed of being Roma, and would say they were anything but Roma. Depp said 'let me do something more,' and wrote this letter telling George's children how they should be proud of being Roma, that he was proud to have known the Roma and spent time with them, and that they should never deny their heritage."
The Indie Vision films over which I played the part of juror came from France, Norway, China; used everything from 35 mm to mm to DigiBeta to DV; were in experimental black-and-white, realist technicolor, or desaturated video; ran the gamut from lighthearted comedy to personal tragedy--ran the gamut in form and content and emotional tone, in other words. It was our unenviable task to screen the films, try make sense of them, and compare not apples and oranges but baseballs and hand grenades to try come up with a "best picture" choice.
Michael Schorr's Schröders wunderbare Welt (Schroeder's Wonderful World, 2006) is glossily made--most of the films did well within the confines of their small (sometimes microscopic) budgets--and resembles a German version of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (fantastic scheme involving development of a town (here into an international tourist attraction) has all the locals with all their eccentricities humming with excitement). Perhaps the most intriguing element is the web of the social and political complexities found in a town bordering three countries--Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic. Affable and amusing entertainment.
Yoshiharu Ueoka's Rukku Ubu Rabu (Look of Love, 2006) has a voyeur peeping on his neighbors making love; a pimp sending his Thai prostitutes to service various customers; a loner obsessing over a satellite flying overhead. Strange stuff, though fans of Lynch's Eraserhead and Blue Velvet might find this more familiar territory. It's annoying/amusing to see the voyeur peer into what practically can be considered a widescreen (Cinemascope, even) window, and be treated to a carefully posed profile view of the couple opposite making love; on the other hand, it makes sense that the voyeur would fantasize such a window and such neighbors screwing opposite--it's the eternal adolescent's idea of an interesting premise.
Joachim Trier's Reprise (2006), about two young men struggling to write their novels--one is an instant success, the other, no--dabbles in a little experimentation (a voiceover narrator explains through a quick montage what happens next in their lives, a la Tom Tykwer's Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run, 1998)); a strong debt is also owed to Truffaut's Jules et Jim (Triers is a self-admitted fan)). A story about two pretty European youths and their angst about art and love and life; a fairly experimental storytelling style, with an eclectic mix of punk and hip-hop songs. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
Takushi Tsubokawa's Aria (2006) is about a recently widowed piano tuner named Ota (Masayuki Shionoya) who befriends a puppeteer with a beautiful, creepily lifelike doll named Aria. When Kuzo dies, Ota strikes out on a long road trip to look for the piano Kuzo's long-dead wife used to play during his performances; he's joined by Kuzo's clownish apprentice, and a mysterious woman who claims to have been Kuzo's daughter.
It's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, done in Tsubokawa's unique deadpan style--the apprentice is the Cowardly Lion, the mysterious daughter (who has to be Aria come to life) is either the Tin Man or the Scarecrow, and Ota is the film's glum male Dorothy. Tsubokawa repeatedly shoots the little van they ride in climbing up an endless-looking road rising heavenward (the concrete equivalent of a Yellow Brick Road); the giveaway clue, however, is a version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" played sweetly, hauntingly on a saw.
Where Tsubokawa's film differs from that great musical is on his insistence on dwelling on loss--a man losing his wife, a daughter her father. By emphasizing this theme (or, rather, by not emphasizing it), he renders the slight, barely remarked suggestion of hovering but not neccesarily malevolent death all the more poignant. Not without its delights, and not without its fair share of mysteries.
Saturday, May 12, 2007
Journal d'un cure de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson, 1951)
It's strange how Bresson's Journal d'un curé de campagne (Dairy of a Country Priest, 1951), a film considered by many to be so spiritual, is so thoroughly immersed in the physical. But Catholicism--and the film is steeped in it--is full of paradoxes: loving one's enemies; believing in one God with three incarnations; needing to die to gain eternal life. Bresson at an early point of his career--using the Georges Bernanos novel--seems to be telling us that to present matters indefinite (the spirit, or soul), you need for material matters definite (the body, the world it lives in); more, to break free of the world of the physical you must first take a firmer hold on said world--for traction, if you like.
The film's first image is of the eponymous diary. You see the texture of the journal's thick paper cover; behind that, a blotter splotched with ink; behind that, a page full of scribbling. The act of writing--scratching ink on rough paper, carefully blotting it, just as carefully closing the cover to keep the contents safe--will become a repeated motif, emphasizing the act of physically capturing and putting down on sheets of flattened pulp one's thoughts and ideas and emotions. Capturing and rendering on paper, so to speak, such elements of the soul as one can record.
New proof that Japanese authorities knew of comfort women in Indonesia
Thanks to Tonya J. for that article; at least the issue is still alive.
And what's that I hear? Resounding silence from the Japanese Diet, where what we have been waiting for all along is an official apology from the Japanese government, issued by its legislature.
We're still waiting.
Laban! Fight for Comfort Women
Thursday, May 10, 2007
The fairy tale that opens the picture--about a princess from an underground kingdom who wanders to the surface, can't find her way back, grows old, and dies--pretty much says it all: this is the story of a girl who was lost, and has since been trying to find herself. Or rather who felt lost, then fumbled her way to some form of self-assessment--what kind of person she is, what she will or will not do.
It's Spain, 1944; Franco's fascist regime has been in power for some years now. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is being driven along with her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) through miles of woodland to her new stepfather, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez); Vidal welcomes his new wife--hugely pregnant with his precious new son--and stepdaughter, installs them in the old mill where he's staying, and continues on his sadistic business of hunting down and torturing the few diehard Republicans hiding in the surrounding mountains. Ofelia, mostly left to herself, explores the grounds of the mill, and an old labyrinth nearby; she encounters a giant faun (Doug Jones--he had previously acted out marine superhero Abe Sapiens in del Toro's "Hellboy") who explains to her that she's really the long-lost princess, and to regain access to her underground kingdom she must perform three tasks before the coming of the full moon.
Artavazd Peleshian's films mostly run not longer than ten to thirty minutes, the longest (Mer dare (Our Century, 1983)) going on for almost an hour. They're what he (describing his Vremena goda (The Four Seasons, 1975)) calls a "cardiogram of the national soul and character" of Armenia, his native land.
He's considered the inventor of distance montage--what that is, I'm not quite sure, though I've googled it a little. Judy Bloch, writing for the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, calls it a "counterpoint over time of images and sounds," claiming it creates "rhythms and moods his predecessors (Vertov, Eisenstein) never attempted." Gregory Pearse and Maria Wagner in cinemaseekers notes that he's often categorized as an "experimental documentary" filmmaker, but seem to subscribe more to fellow Armenian filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov's view that he's "one of the few authentic geniuses of cinema;" that his cinema--or the cinema he creates by means of distance montage--is really "built entirely on the intuitive association between the images." In short, "it utilizes the ability of the spirit to "understand" reality instead of the ability of the brain/intellect."
Asking Peleshian himself doesn't seem any more helpful; his answers are as maddeningly vague. "In Eisenstein every element means something. For me the individual fragments don't mean anything anymore. Only the whole film has the meaning."
Mm-hmm, yep, sure; now I get it. The JIFF catalogue describes it as "A piece of montage. There is no meaning of pieces; it has a full meaning only when each scene is put together," which seems to take off (however awkwardly) from what Peleshian himself is saying. So it's with this headful of confused and contradictory notions that I sat down (with Mr. Peleshian and his wife some rows behind me) to watch some of his films.
Obitateli (Inhabitants, 1970) intercuts footage of birds taking flight--thousands of them spreading their wings across the screen in such a woosh! of air you want to cover yourself--with huge closeups of caged animals (you catch glimpses of bars here, there), wet, dark eyes staring straight at the lens; the contrast between freed and incarcerated creatures is striking, dramatic. Vremena goda (Four Seasons, 1975), his first to eschew archival footage in favor of footage shot by his cinematographer Mikhail Vartanov, opens with a shepherd in a raging river, struggling to keep hold of his sheep; the rest of the film continues its downward plunge with more shepherds sliding down cliff faces with more sheep, farmers dragging huge haystacks down alarming inclines, and so on. The sense of hurtling motion, of life unstoppable, of energy and will pulling and shoving forward and down is overwhelming. Peleshian scores the whole thing to Vivaldi's Four Seasons, of course (with additional use of Armenian folk music); I can't imagine anything else will do.
Kyanq (Life, 1993) is one of his simplest, his first and only one in color, and easily his most moving--a record of a childbirth. A lesser filmmaker would train his camera downwards, below the waist, and chronicle the child's passage out the birth canal; Peleshian focuses his lens on the mother's face, on her suffering and pain, with a heartbeat (hers?) pulsing on the soundtrack. To call it a great performance would be to cheapen it, demean it; it's simply a mother giving birth, no more, no less, and half the art (I think) is in Peleshian recognizing that in her face is the source of the film's true power.
Verj (End, 1992) is often (and it would be appropriate) called his last film (on this point things get confusing--both the JIFF catalogue and some websites say it isn't (that would be Kyanq), imdb.com says it is). The film's almost as simple as Kyanq: a train rushing through a tunnel, and in the distance is the suggestion--the merest hint--of a light. The finale is inevitable, almost superfluous, but Peleshian builds up to so much tension--with engine roar and whistle shriek and tiny blob of light--that when it finally comes, it's a stunning epiphany.
I can almost see what people mean when they say what they say; it is an intuitive cinema. Peleshian connects images together but not in a logical or narrative sense--beyond narrative? Supra logical? For want of a better term one might have to settle on the word "spiritual." The separate shots cohere and gain full meaning when the puzzle pieces are in place, and the picture is seen whole (think Susan Alexander and her endless puzzles--or, if you will, the structure of Kane itself). What's missing from these and other explanations, really, is what's missing when you get up to leave, that little je ne sais quoi that spells the difference between talking about the film and experiencing it, and it's on that difference, I think, that most of us founder when trying to talk about what Peleshian has done.
What I can say about his films is that there's a grandeur, a magnificence that doesn't put itself above its subject--no, it's clear that despite the amplitude or magnification of motion, size, intensity, Peleshian's sympathies are with what he's shooting. He doesn't assume the godlike viewpoint, though there are qualities of that in his imagery (thanks to the use of telephoto lenses--"for candid shots" as he puts it), but by avoiding voiceover narration, by refusing to pronounce judgement on them, by instead depending on music, or an accepting silence, he, well, exalts the images, lends to them a more intense appreciation ('Exalt?' 'Godlike?' Is it possible that religious connotations are unavoidable, perhaps should even be embraced?). Not many novelists can do that--I can think of Tolstoy, maybe, and parts of Hugo; not many filmmakers too--oh, Renoir comes to mind, as well as Welles, Ozu, Mario O'Hara.
And that was that. The house lights came up. I saw Mr. Peleshian, leaning on his wife, glumly making his way to the exit. I had to do it; I put out my hand--"I enjoyed your films very much, sir!" He shook hands, smiled briefly and nodded, and left. Feeble tribute, I know, but as I've been trying to say all along, it was hard--impossible, maybe--to put it all in words.
Johnnie To's Fong juk (Exiled, 2006) is easily the most fun I've had of any film in the festival--but I've always been partial to To; he's a more dependable storyteller than John Woo, a more intense dramatist than Tsui Hark, and a wilder fabulist than the low-key Ringo Lam. I've always thought he'd be the shoo-in for a Hollywood career, and wondered why he's never taken the plunge, unlike his filmmaking brothers.
In the letter To wrote for the JIFF's closing ceremonies, he had said he wanted to "relax, make a fun film" and I think it shows; unlike the grimly realistic Hak se wui (Election) films this one is almost all bombast and romanticism, Sergio Leone style; it even has some of the European architectural motifs you'd catch in the corner of your eye in Leone's work (the film was shot in Macau, and makes full use of the exotic Chinese-Portugese ambience), some of his sweeping camera moves (a character doesn't just walk into a room, he glides into it, with the camera as his magic carpet), and of course the harmonica (you almost expect to spot Charles Bronson hidden away in the shadows with his legs crossed).
The spirit may be Leone, but the plot is almost pure Peckinpah--the criminals past their prime, the hunt by a higher power, the desperate heist, the heroic turnaround and rescue--all are there. If you ever wondered what The Wild Bunch might have looked like if Leone had directed, wonder no more; To has done it on behalf of both legends.
The film's self-referential nature isn't as annoying as if, say, Quentin Tarantino does it; with Tarantino, you get all references and little else (well, a mysognistic, rather sophomoric sense of humor, I suppose). With To you get style, and the smarts to play the references with or against that style. Hence the climactic shootout--you go in primed by all the parallels to The Wild Bunch expecting a grand bloodbath, in slow motion; To plays it the other way, perversely, almost tosses the whole thing off one shoulder, and focuses on two details: the fate of a wife and child (strange, how Hong Kong cinema is so much like Filipino cinema in that respect--the survival of the family being of prime interest), and the development of an instant photo. It might be argued that this is what the film really is about, actually--the collecting or gathering together of photos for an album filled with unforgettable memories. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
It's maddeningly, fascinatingly obscure, that much I can tell you. Shot in DV, the film is mostly two and a half hours of a 75-year-old man named Ventura (played by an actor of the same name) wandering about, talking to what he fondly calls his 'children' (they may or may not be--the film doesn't confirm one way or another (and if they are his children, he must have been the busiest man with the most number of women this side of Noah post-deluge)). Actually, 'talk' is something of a misnomer: Ventura enters a room, exchanges a few lines of dialogue with the person in the room, and either he or that other person will relate an anecdote, usually some five to ten minutes long, on some past episode in his/her life.
The framing is almost always odd--indoors, Ventura and his fellow inmates (the term seems appropriate, given their circumstances and behavior) are often to one side of the frame, at a slightly skewed angle, the shot held a beat after or a beat before anything significant happens (one thinks of Bresson's equally off-kilter camera angles, and odd timing). At one point Ventura and a man play a game of cards, a brilliant beam of sunlight on the card table the only source of illumination (one thinks of a prison guard visiting his charge in solitary); other times Costas plays his characters off the featureless whitewash of new apartment walls, blank slates against which the people seemed poised to write their lives. Outside, we get repeated images of Ventura sitting on a red chair outside one daughter's apartment (she goes in and out without saying a word to him), or standing with an extremely patient government housing agent (you wonder why he humors Ventura, who clearly has no money with which to pay for all his vaguely ambitious plans) before the housing development into which he's moving, the building looming up behind like some modern ziggurat marking dead and buried lives.
The various monologues are not quite dull--many of the anecdotes are lovely, especially those of Vanda (Vanda Duarte, the eponymous heroine of Costas' previous film) and her tale of salvation from drugs through her husband and baby (Is this actual testimony, or a whitewashed account of how she wished her life would be like? Are any of these people--often shot with a ghostlike aura by Costas--real, or figments of Ventura's wish-fulfilling imagination? Again, the film doesn't confirm). And there's this one migrant worker (Alberto 'Lento' Barros, as Lento) who asks Ventura to transcribe a letter to his estranged wife, an assignment Ventura gradually takes over and makes his own, reciting over and over again an extravagant declaration of love that gets more and more elaborate with each repetition (a late version reads something like this):
Nha cretcheu, my love,
Being together again will make our life beautiful
For another thirty years.
As for me, I will come back full of love and strength.
I wish I could give you a hundred thousand cigarettes,
a dozen of those fancy dresses,
a car, the little lava house you've always wanted,
a threepenny bouquet.
But above all else,
Drink a good bottle of wine,
And think of me.
Here it's all work.
We're over a hundred now.
I still don't have anything from your hand.
I will soon...
Sometimes I'm afraid of building these walls,
Me, with a pick and cement
And you, with your silence.
The letter is richly referential (the title of his 1995 film Casa de Lava translates literally to "House of Lava") and in part, plagiarized: Ventura doesn't admit it to the poor man, but he takes details from a love letter written by Robert Desnos (note Desnos' at one time close ties with the Surrealists--and keep in mind that Costas' film is filled to brimming with surreal imagery, vivid in their unnerving stillness).
The letter is also, like much of the film, stunningly beautiful. Ventura repeats the correspondence /poem over and over again, and it gradually comes to be the film's stanza--one man's forlorn plea for hope and love, in these hopeless, loveless slums, its extravagance inversely proportional to the man's powers to fulfill it, more an expression of his desperation, his will to imagine a better life for his beloved, than of anything else.
Susan Griffin in her article on a photo exhibit on Tina Modotti tells a story about Desnos (I won't repeat it, it really belongs in that article); could Costas be thinking in the same spirit, having these lost men and women declare through their reminiscences--incantations, really--a better reality, perhaps a better future that they hope to bring about, mainly by utterance and repetition because they have little else? I don't know, I don't know; but the Desnos story is such an unlikely little anecdote you want to believe in it, the way this film and its focus on these characters seems like a willed hallucination, hoping against hope to change reality through its/their very existence.
After the near-unbearable weight of Juventud, it's tempting to say Mamoru Oshii's Tachiguishi retsuden (Amazing Life of the Fast Food Grifters, 2006) is an abrupt change of pace, but that would be perverse.
The scene: a noodle shop in Tokyo. The time: an hour before closing. Under the light of a full moon appears Moongaze Ginji, who orders a bowl of soup (the camera at one point revolves around the counter to reveal that the near-photorealistic noodle shop owner and Ginji are both digitally animated paper-thin constructs).
Ginji has specific instructions: "Put the raw egg on the noodles. Pour soup into the bowl." He swirls the soup, watching the egg--golden strands in the clear broth--quickly cook. "Nice landscape," he says. The noodle shop owner's reply: "It's only a bowl of noodles."
A narrator explains that the maverick ethonographer (his words) chooses the hour before closing because this was when the owner's psychic self breaks through his businessman's persona, when his very philosophy is apparent; the narrator goes on to note that soba was a commoner's food in the Edo era, and accompanied the spread of Buddhism.
When the noodle owner snorts "it's only a bowl of noodles!" Ginji replies that not only is it just a bowl of noodles, it's noodles made from bogus ingredients. Despite which Ginji is able to devour the bowl's contents at the zenith of its splendor, fully appreciating it the very instant before it vanishes forever. Only words can bring back the intensity of the original experience, in a manner surpassing the original.
The film (of which that opening sequence was but a sample) is a heady, dense, near-incomprehensible mix of Japanese fast-food lore, faux superhero mythology (think Justice League Unlimited animated as if it were South Park and hosted by the Food Network), postwar Japanese history, and postgraduate philosophy. It's some kind of history of con-men with absurd nicknames (the aforementioned Moongaze Ginji; Foxy Croquette O-Gin; Beefbowl Ushigoro; Hamburger Tetsu; Frankfurter Tatsu; Medium Hot Sabu--Tarantino can only dream of inventing aliases as wildly colorful as these) who put on elaborate, even philosophically didactic scams to avoid paying for their meals. Blink or be distracted for even a second, and you lose the thread of the intricate narrative; fail to see this, and you'll miss what I consider to be one of the funniest--and tastiest--films I've seen recently.
Japan-based film critic Mark Schilling seems to have the clearest take of any non-Japanese on what the film's all about, yet is less than enthusiastic about the final product (For sources of inspiration he cites kamashibai, picture cards used to tell a story, and mentions (but carefully refrains from including) South Park (But why? Couldn't Oshii be a fan, or at least a casual viewer?). And I'd include the more recent Aqua Team Hunger Force and Terry Gilliam's animated sequences in the Monty Python series as possible influences). "Why a movie?" Schillling asks. "The short answer is that, after three largely successful decades in the animation business, Oshii can make nearly anything he wants, including this elaborate private joke. Which is, for the audience, the ultimate grift." Point taken, but it's still funny, I submit; the joke only gets better when you learn it's also on you.
*the longer answer, according to Production I.G. President Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, was that they didn't want to spend a lot of money on Oshii's next film, so they had college students do the post-production work, mainly for the privilege of doing so, and famous animators do the acting (the animators' contracts stipulated that they would help publicize the film (if they didn't their scenes would be cut), so promotional costs were small).
Italian public television executive Enrico Ghezzi commissioned Europa 2005 - 27 Octobre from the husband-and-wife team of Danielle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub to commemorate Roberto Rosellini's centenary . The result is this 12 minute short, a "sequel" to Rossellini's Europa '51 that at the same time refers to October 27, 2005--the day two Parisian youngsters (Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17) who were fleeing the police hid in a high voltage electric transformer and burned to death, sparking an uprising in France.
It's difficult to say anything about the film (and if I didn't know anything about the context, well nigh impossible), but the entire short consists of the camera panning right from a huge graffitti on a wall with a bloody handprint, to stop at some building. Cut to a shot starting from the building, panning left past the graffiti (the camera is now several feet further away), ending at the fateful transformers. Repeat several times.
Again, what to say? The walls, the barred gates, the silence interrupted by a barking dog, all connote private properties, to be trespassed (as the youths had done) at one's peril (which the boys were in, actually); the only sign of protest are the graffitis spray-painted on the wall. The filmmakers repeat this searching, probing movement again and again, trying to find meaning in the deaths; one thinks of Ingrid Bergman's anguish in Europa '51, and one realizes that their mute repetitions imply an answer to their probing.
Manoel de Oliveira's O Improvável Não é Impossível (The Improbable isn't Impossible, 2006) is another commissioned work, this one from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to commemorate the 50th year of their musuem. Oliveira cuts images of the museum's treasures--from sculptures to artifacts to paintings to live concert performances--together without any comment save by the museum's officials. Like any master, he homes in on the tiny detail none of us would think of pointing out--the endless doors opened and closed in such institutions, implying necessary categorizing and compartmentalization (a museum's exhibits must be organized to make sense) at the same time there's access (the doors are constantly opening and closing, as prelude to and transition between galleries). Wonderful, puzzling little film.